British TV comedy has a standard historical hierarchy. At the top, usually, is Monty Python's Flying Circus. Next comes either Blackadder or Fawlty Towers (your choice)...and then there's the rest, everything from Are You Being Served? to Yes, Prime Minister, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin to any number of limited laughfests. Somewhere in the middle rests the resplendent Red Dwarf, and unusual combination of science fiction and comedy that transcends both genres to deliver a unique and often surreal slice of speculative jests. Having lasted for more than two decades (the first episodes premiered in 1988!), it's left an impression on all who've come across it. Still, it's been over 10 years since the last series aired, and since then, there have been rumors about a return. Now comes a three-part production known as Back to Earth, and while spotty in certain regards, it illustrates why this unusual program probably deserves a place higher up on the UK comedy hit parade.
When Cat discovers a monster in the last remaining on board water reservoir, the gang appears doomed. Then a Russian efficiency hologram named Katerina Bartikovsky arrives with some unusual news. Rimmer is to be permanently decommissioned while Lister is to be saved and restart the human race. Of course, that's almost impossible without a mate, so the crew creates a time rift using part of the creature's DNA, hoping it will lead to solution. Instead, it propels them back to Earth circa 2009, where they learn they are merely characters is a popular cult sci-fi TV show.
And it was worth the wait. Of course, there are a couple of factors you will have to get over before jumping in, especially if you are a purist who prefers the older episodes of the series. First and foremost, the laugh "track" is gone. Instead of an appreciative British audience chortling along with most of the humor, Back to Earth was filmed sans spectators. That means that it takes a few minutes to get used to the "joke/beat" set-up of the dialogue. As seasoned performers, Craig Charles (Lister), Chris Barrie (Rimmer), Danny John-Jules (Cat) and Robert Llewellyn (Kryten) know comic timing, and regularly offer the slightest pause in between perceived gags to guarantee their impact. The empty space where guffaws and giggled will be again takes a bit getting used to. So does the Blade Runner inspired meta-narrative. Naylor has purposely gone back to a certain episode of a previous series to set-up his narrative, and without some knowledge of both Dwarf and the Ridley Scott opus, you'll miss a great deal of the references and ironic inside jokes.
Still, as an attempt to both resolve issues from the past as well as prepare the series for a possible post-millennial reinvention, Back to Earth is brilliant. The Blade Runner stuff just sings, clearly the work of dedicated fans of the 1982 future shock classic. Equally intriguing is the intricate story-within-a-story byplay between Charles and his fictional life friends from Dwarf. When they catch up with the actor on the set of Coronation Street (a UK soap where he's been a consistent presence since 2005), his reactions are just priceless. All is not flawless, however. The odd element out is the sudden arrival of Sophie Winkleman as the specious efficiency officer with a jones for Rimmer's hard drive. While we fans expect the unexpected with the show, having an element like this literally drop in and determine the fate of a popular program is a risk - and one that doesn't always pay off. Still, when we get to the penthouse apartment of The Creator, complete with magic typewriter that can alter the destiny of everyone in the series, we anticipate the creative chaos...and Back to Earth delivers. While the actors are a tad older and more "husky", they can still take a serious science fiction premise and turn it into farce - and we wouldn't want it any other way.
The Audio:,br> While everything else - extras, standard three part mini-series - is offered in Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0, the "Director's Cut" (see below) is given a magnificent 5.1 Surround Sound mix. It really comes alive during the diving bell sequence, as well as during the more ambient moments meant to mimic Blade Runner's ethereal tone. The dialogue is always discernible, and the musical scoring by series stalwart Howard Goodall is, as always, great.
The rest of the bonus features are found on the second disc. They include another amazing hour long documentary on the making of the mini-series, as well as a great bit of Behind the Scenes insight. There are also deleted scenes, bloopers (known as "smeg-ups" by devotees to the show), additional featurettes, trailers, web videos, a photo gallery, and a few fun Easter Eggs. The result is just like every other digital presentation of the series - as entertaining in its backstage antics as it is as a feature.